REPORTS OF SEATTLE’S DEMISE HAVE BEEN GREATLY EXAGGERATED: Many — yours truly included — sort of wrote off the Seattle Sounders prior to the start of the season. Sure, they made MLS Cup Final, but in the offseason they had largely stood pat while losing pieces like Jordan Morris, Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson — whose late goal ended Minnesota’s playoff run in the semifinals. Now, goalkeeper Stefan Frei hasn’t played since May 12, midfielder Nico Lodeiro has played just 24 minutes in one game as a sub, defender Nouhou Tolo hasn’t stepped on the pitch for Seattle since the end of May, and the Sounders are on top of the Supporters Shield standings with the best goal differential in the league. Even for a league as frequently topsy-turvy as MLS, this is some odd stuff. Players have stepped up and a lot of credit has to go to Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, who continues to show why he’s worthy of being considered one of the all-time greats in the league. He’s shifted the team into a 5-3-2 formation that’s allowed the fullbacks to sally forth while keeping the backline robust and it’s worked wonders. The scary question: How much better can they get? Best XI-caliber players like Frei and Lodeiro will be coming back at some point and the return of Lodeiro is particularly worrisome for other teams. For years, the Sounders’ attack has largely been predicated on getting the ball to Lodeiro and letting him work, but now, they’ve shown they have an entirely other way of getting things done as well. Sporting Kansas City might be nipping at their heels in the Supporters Shield race, but with Seattle’s track record of postseason success, it would be sheer folly to bet against them going all the way to another Final at this point.
A STORY FROM DICKETY EIGHTEEN: Back in 2018, the Loons were doing their best to improve upon what had been a difficult first season — one in which the club surrendered an MLS record 70 goals. After another rocky start, MNUFC had made a splash upon signing the team’s first Designated Player, Darwin Quintero, and by July, Quintero was looking like the best thing to ever happen to the Loons. On July 4, he notched the team’s first hat trick in MLS in a 4-3 win over Toronto FC, who at the time were the class of the East, fresh off winning the Supporters Shield in 2017. The Loons went on to win three of their next five games, including a 5-1 thumping of then-expansion side LAFC. And then came the Sounders. Seattle had already walloped Minnesota 3-1 back in April, but that was just after Quintero arrived and while he was still getting his bearings in MLS. In their game on August 4 at TCF Bank Stadium, MNUFC jumped out to an early lead on a Quintero goal assisted by Miguel Ibarra in the 19th minute. Not known at the time for gutting out defensive wins, the Loons nevertheless held the line down the stretch and it looked like they would manage to take all three points. But then stoppage time arrived. An Ibarra handball in the box led to a penalty kick buried by Nico Lodeiro and then in the 97th minute, Will Bruin buried a shot that tore the home side’s heart out. The fight went out of the team at that point and they limped to the finish line, winning twice more, but drawing twice and losing six games, including their final four. To put the cherry on it, they beat their own record, surrendering 71 goals. Plenty of fans will rightly point to the Sounders’ win over the Loons in the Western Conference Semifinal in 2020 as the loss that needs to be avenged, but suffice it to say, it goes a lot deeper than last year.
MAY THE ROAD RISE UP TO MEET YOU: A little more recently in the team’s history, 2019 was undoubtedly the year when MNUFC took a big step, making the MLS playoffs for the first time and putting together a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup all the way to the Final. As the team began to gel that year, there was a stretch where every game seemed to get tagged with the “most important game in franchise history” label. First it was FC Dallas, another team hovering near the edge of the playoff line, and then it was Real Salt Lake, for the same reason. Then back-to-back games with Portland in Open Cup play and regular season play, both of which MNUFC won to show they could tangle with the class of the league. Then there was the game that could — and did — clinch Minnesota’s spot in the playoffs against Sporting Kansas City. All of those big moments from 2019, though, featured an MNUFC team fighting uphill against their own history. Sunday’s game against Seattle is not a make-or-break game. It’s likely being billed as the “most important game in franchise history” by precisely no one. But after struggling to start the season and now seeming to lock in, the Loons now find themselves fighting not to get somewhere they’ve never been before, but to get back to where they think they belong. Facing the top team in the league with the chance to end their unbeaten streak by beating them for the first time ever — especially as a measure of revenge for last season’s playoff loss and this season’s woeful season opener — has put Minnesota in a position to rewrite the script between the two sides and establish a tone for the rest of the season in a game that might, in retrospect, become a pivotal one.